For David Elder, making the trip to Nashville to star in the national touring company of Irving Berlin's White Christmas-the stage musical based on the holiday film favorite-is a homecoming of sorts. For it was in Music City that the talented young man from Texas first set off on his circuitous route to stardom.
Like so many other musical theater stars just like him-Kristin Chenoweth, John Barrowman and Jason Daniely come to mind-Elder got his start in show business at Nashville's late and lamented Opryland USA, the nation's preeminent performing arts theme park, which provided a fertile training ground for performers during its laudable history of providing top-flight stage shows and thrilling rides for people from all over the world.
"Just before coming to Nashville, I did my first professional job after college in Texas," Elder recalls. "One of the boys in the show was from Tennessee and he suggested we audition for Opryland. When you're so young, you go toward anything that seems promising. Leaving home after three years of vocal performance training, I landed in Nashville, cast as a singing tumbler at Opryland USA."
The young, handsome and promising Elder came to Tennessee with scarcely any dance training, having taught himself to tumble "because it was just something I wanted to do…I thought if I lived through the first try, I figured I could do it."
Arriving at Opryland USA, it became clear, Elder remembers that theme park powers-that-be "had designs on teaching me how to dance."
Among his first friends at the theme park was Denice Childs McGrath, then an assistant choreographer for the park's stage shows. In short order, the two became "best buds": "She took me to my first ballet class and into the rehearsal halls, showing me the things I needed to know, telling me what they were called…my initial learning period was a case of me just copying what I saw the real dancers doing," he says.
"My parents didn't have the wherewithal to take me to dance class when I was growing up, so the folks at Opryland gave me a vocabulary and the skills came not super easily, but rather easily I guess, and I had a passion that allowed me to learn quickly."
As a result, Nashville might be considered one of David Elder's hometowns. Even after eight shows on Broadway and all the opportunities he's had in the intervening years since he left Opryland, he remembers his theme park years as among "the most fun I ever had…when you're a kid you're hungering for that type of stuff…all the singing, all the dancing in three to four shows a day."
And while the national touring company settles into its eight-show run at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center's Andrew Jackson Hall, Elder will be staying with his old friend Denise, just like old times.
"Opryland was the premiere show park in the country," he explains. "I was there in 1987, '88 and '89, performing in Way Out West and Music, Music, Music, starring Brenda Lee. She was fantastic, such a lovely woman, and by the third year I was a full-fledged dancer in the eyes of everyone at Opryland. They had taken me under their wings, we did all the Miss Tennessee Pageants, they had turned me into a dancer and had made me into that triple threat that I needed to be if I was going to make it on Broadway."
His first show on Broadway was the Tony Award-winning revival of Guys and Dolls (starring Nathan Lane, Faith Prince, Peter Gallagher and Jozie de Guzman), but he credits his stint in Damn Yankees-opposite Jerry Lewis' Mr. Applegate, on tour in 1997 that brought him to the expansive Andrew Jackson Hall stage-as the first show that made him realize that, perhaps, he'd found a career in musical theatre.